Monday, February 2, 2009

Keep On Rockin' In The Real World

My home life hasn't quieted down - roof's still intermittently leaking, wife has been in Florida at a conference, and PrettyInPink and I have been boxing each other's ears off on the Wii.

I wanted to drop an article on you though: Life at Wal-Mart by guest blogger Charles Platt. Platt concludes that Barbara Ehrenreich was (is) selling her readers a line of crap in Nickle and Dimed. Keep in mind, Pratt is a section editor of Make Magazine, a senior writer for Wired, an inventor and science fiction writer. He's educated, smart, British and is certainly not typical of Wal-Mart's store associate staff.

Read my rebuttals below the fold.
Somehow her [Ehrenreich's] book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting.
After reading this entire article through, I have to question your skills and goals however, Charles. In rebuttal to what is quite obviously a biased book, you went and . . wrote a heavily biased short article and don't attempt to research and ask deeper questions of the issue, but recreate the experiment, over-simplifying the conditions. You didn't ask why you might have made it and made it well. You didn't ask why you might have superiors that were good to you. Were you thinking of an entire book arguing against Ehrenreich point of view? What made you abandon it?
Getting in was not easy, as more than 100 applicants were competing for fewer than 10 job openings. Still, I made it through a very clever screening quiz, then through a series of three interviews, followed by two days of training. I felt ambivalent about taking advantage of the company’s resources in this way, but I was certainly willing to do my part by working hard at the store, at least for a limited period.
Charles, every employer of part-time service staff has to train so it can explain customer service and the businesses expectations of it's staff. Customer Service is not being taught in schools. The service desk I manage demands that new employees have at least 30 hours of training before they're considered competent. Two days (16 hours) of training is pretty normal. And 3 interviews and a clever screening quiz? The quiz is to determine if you're not going to steal from them and not psychopathic in some sense contrary to what the company can handle. 3 interviews was because if you fully explained your resume and why you took the job, company managers are going inspect you with a microscope and probably make sure you're not Ehrenreich again in drag. Buddy, they wanted a friendly rebuttal. No one got played, but they knew they had a friend.
The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.
And this is a multi-national company with millions of store associates - they know the law and they know what they need to do to keep you productive and if not happy, certainly agreeable and consistent with every other typical associate. This is Human Resources 101, man. And the training? I'd ask when it was implemented, and why? I'd lay solid coin that training available to you because of local law and union pressure for improved workplace conditions; the employer probably had to be dragged into it and then realized that these workplace do actually make for a better employee and more profitable enterprise.
My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory.
Decisions or make *input* into decisions? I bet its the latter, but that you don't make that distinction is indicative of the thoughtless reporting you're doing. And what did training say about the profit margin and sharing it with customers? Was it encouraged or discouraged? And was your equipment standard for all store associates?
Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify).
Sloppy thinking again - Dude, those Steelers fans obviously suck because the Cards got robbed! Of course, if you work for Wal-Mart, you're going to have a predisposition to hate on Target. It's simple tribalism.
Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.
Here's some legitimate points - ones I've worked against myself. Small business employment promotion opportunities can suck within the business. For a promotion, you have to *sigh*, go looking for a job, again! And that's something most people are not inclined to do - myself included. And quixotic policies are, because of the multitudes of individuals running small businesses, going to be a statement of Infinite Diversity through Infinite Combination. If you like conformity, a larger business is probably going to have more of it.
Of course, I was not well paid, but Wal-Mart is hardly unique in paying a low hourly rate to entry-level retail staff. The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.
'Cause, I'm sure we don't know this, you bloody waspish scold.
As for all those Wal-Mart horror stories—when I went home and checked the web sites that attack the company, I found that many of them are subsidized with union money., for instance, is partnered with the Service Employees International Union; is copyright by United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Why are unions so obsessed with Wal-Mart? I'm guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.
Okay, here's a serious bone to pick with anti-unionist arguments: the unions are competing in a labor market, which is something these arguments are designed to circumvent. It turns the greed argument on its head from the company owners to the unions, essentially asserting that the only reason unions want to establish representation in Wal-Mart is for the money. And as we know, it's multiply-branched argument; from here anti-organization employers argue it raises costs and robs consumers, unfairly takes away profits from the company, encourages workplace sedition and conflict, etc . .

Unions are fighting to maintain what has been falling share of workplace representation since the immediate post-war boom. As the unions weaken, so do the chances of union representation in businesses which actually need unions - businesses which are poorly run or treat employees unfairly. Sure, things are better now with labor laws, Equal Opportunity laws, workplace safety law - but those things had to be fought for tooth, nail, blood, and sweat through unions and lawsuits by employees. Unions need to change their goals in the post-labor-law workplace, I won't argue with that, but workers still need access to representation.
Subsequently I considered writing about my brief experience, but a book defending a company that has been demonized does not have a large potential audience, and the writer tends to be dismissed as either hopelessly naive or bribed by corporate America.
Bullshit. You didn't have a full book and you couldn't invest more in your employment travails to make a full book. Did anyone look at a calendar? The reason you're no longer at Wal-Mart is you were a holiday hire, and by late January, you're gone unless you intend to stay on. I'm sure Wal-Mart would have kept Charles on if he chose. The other real reason follows.
If you haven’t heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point. His remarkable book Scratch Beginnings, now being promoted through, describes how he went through an experience far more grueling than my brief flirtation with low-paying work. He placed himself in a homeless shelter with $25 in his pocket, found a job as a day laborer, then worked for a moving company, and after 10 months had a pickup truck, an apartment, and $2,500 in savings. His conclusion: People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard.

Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.
Adam Shepard is a darling of the Libertarians and business class, so he's getting plenty of attention. And Charles didn't bother because that book already existed.

A simple Google search on just Adam Shepard's name, which is fairly common, turns up a full page of hits on his writing, including a fairly glowing Christian Science Monitor article on Adam and his book. But Shepard's story has some unfairness. Sure if you're young, single without children, healthy, smart with a college degree (even if it's a secret), and have no costly habits (smoking, drinking, video games, Internet), you can probably succeed off of nothing. Millions of people in this country, many of them illegal aliens, do it every year. But Adam's goal was slightly ridiculous as well - even with his savings and property, he was still one accident or illness away from poverty and bankruptcy. And the millions of people that are barely treading water or slowly going under is a testament to the problems of the American capitalism system when life gets in the way.

Why don't you just call Ehrenreich, Nellie Bly or Socialist Sinclair, or another one of those so funny names that Conservatives love to slime liberal journalists with, Charles?

Well, considering BoingBoing's reader population, I'm sure traffic has gotten quite a bump in the last few days. Congratluations! I wonder who's been screening the reader comments, though. :)


Anjha said...

Damn Id, I did not realize that you put up a couple of posts until just now and I do not have time to read them.

I will check in later.

I have missed you.

idiosynchronic said...

I know - I just have a good deal on my plate. I've missed reading all of you and posting as well.